Palestinian Feminists Are Resisting Colonization by Fighting Sexual Violence

Earlier this summer, several news outlets reported that the Palestinian American Community Center (PACC) in New Jersey, where Palestinian Americans gather for community organizing, civic engagement and humanitarian relief efforts was “bombarded with threats for 7 hours.” Yet perhaps due to the patriarchal culture underlying the U.S. media, the news reporters did not give much focus to the highly gendered and sexualized nature of these threats, which were laced with language about sexual violence and rape:

Caller: “Is this the terrorist community center?”

Caller: “I’m going to come rape you and give you a taste of your own medicine.”

The sexualized nature of these threats was just one recent example of how the Israeli state and its supporters across the globe often rely upon sexism and homophobia to further the project of Israeli settler-colonialism.

Indeed, the Israeli state’s reliance on the gendered and sexualized targeting of Palestinian bodies is an essential component of colonization that disproportionately devastates the lives of women and LGBTQ people and obstructs the possibilities of mothering, caretaking and relationship-building.

Yet all along, Palestinian feminists have been exposing, resisting and shaping a world beyond the hetero-patriarchal violence that is foundational to the Israeli settler-colonial project while demanding, on a global stage, that the Palestinian struggle is a feminist and a reproductive justice issue.

As Israeli settler-colonialism finds its perfect ally in U.S. settler-colonialism, U.S.-based advocates of Israel have been reifying this pattern for decades by consistently bullying Palestinian community leaders and activists, and threatening them (not only women) with rape and sexual assault. The recent attack on Palestinian Feminist Collective (PFC) member Rasha Mubarak, president of Unbought Power, is but one example of how this repression strategy especially targets women organizers. After she co-led an effort demanding that Florida state legislators condemn Israeli violence and support free speech on Palestine, pro-Israel advocates accused her of being an “Islamist” who targets “Jews and Gays.”

Whether real or threat, sexualized violence invoked in service of the Israeli state furthers one of the foundations of settler-colonialism — dominating and controlling Palestinian people, which necessitates the violation of Palestinian women’s bodies. A patriarchal logic and its heteronormative gender binary drives the necessity of these colonial violations while reducing women to mere bearers of future generations and therefore, those responsible for reproducing Palestine.

Consider the massacre of Deir Yassin village, a central moment in the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians from their villages during the Nakba of 1948, an event Palestinians and Arabs insist that “we will never forget” and that right-wing supporters of Israel deny ever happened. Recounting her experience when Zionist fighters went house to house with submachine guns, Fahimeh Ali Mustafa Zeidan later recalled:

[They] took us out one by one. They shot the son-in-law, and when one of his daughters screamed, they shot her too. They then called my brother Mahmoud and shot him in our presence, and when my mother screamed and bent over my brother, carrying my little sister Khadra, who was still being breast-fed, they shot my mother too…. They then lined us up, shot at us, and left.

Many Palestinian testimonies of the events surrounding the creation of the state of Israel involve memories of rape and sexual assault, even as Israel’s literal and metaphorical targeting of Palestinian women’s bodies continues 73 years later.

Palestinian Feminist Collective banner
Banner image for Palestinian Feminist Collective.

For instance, Palestinian Feminist Collective member Nada Elia has documented Israeli military intelligence officer Mordechai Kedar suggesting that the only thing that would deter attacks by a Hamas militant “is knowing that if caught, his sister or his mother would be raped.” She also reminds us of Israeli Minister of Interior Ayelet Shaked who openly called for the murder of Palestinian women because they give birth to “little snakes.”

Just as white supremacist forces in the U.S. scapegoat Black mothers in an attempt to avert attention from the state’s racist criminalization of Black men, Israeli state officials and media scapegoat Palestinian mothers, describing them as “terrorist supporters” who would prioritize throwing their children out into the streets to die over loving and protecting them.

Elia adds that such comments reflect an Israeli infrastructure designed to sustain high rates of miscarriages by blocking basic resources such as water and medical supplies, and generally creating inhumane and unlivable conditions for Palestinians. For supporters of Israeli settler-colonialism, controlling Palestinian reproduction is essential to maintaining a Jewish majority on Palestinian land.

This is why, as Rhoda Kanaaneh, pioneer of Palestinian reproductive justice feminism, has established, Israeli state policies encourage Jewish Israelis to reproduce while discouraging Palestinian Israelis from having children. This also explains why Souzan Naser and the collective we co-lead, MAMAS, have been demanding that Palestinian liberation is a reproductive justice issue.

Palestinian political prisoners (meaning all Palestinians incarcerated in Israeli jails), despite their gender identity, face the threat and reality of systemic sexual violence and torture. Paralleling the homophobic and sexist imperialist strategy that U.S. soldiers used in the Abu-Ghraib torture scandal in Iraq, the Israeli state targets political prisoners using the racist assumptions that Arab culture is “hyper-misogynist” and rooted in apparently backwards or “savage” concepts of family honor and shame. In one well-established pattern, Israeli soldiers threaten Palestinian detainees that they will bring in a family member to watch the soldiers sexually assault them or punish them by sexually assaulting their family member.

Freedom Within Reach - Palestine Action Toolkit Cover
Cover image for Palestinian Feminist Collective’s “Freedom Within Reach” Palestine Action Toolkit.

This colonialist and imperialist strategy is driven by the racist idea that sexualized punishment is a “special” way to punish people from the Arab region. As this colonialist-racist logic goes, since the many people often lumped together as “Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims” are considered “exceptionally sexist,” sexual violence is deemed especially appalling to them. Of course, as organizer Trishala Deb asks in their analysis of U.S. soldiers who used a similar logic against Iraqi war prisoners, for which culture would these acts of sexual assault, rape and murder be less appalling?

To be sure, Elham Bayour and Lena Meari remind us that such strategies aim to scare Palestinians from participating in resistance against Israeli colonization. Yet they also shift public attention away from U.S. and Israeli state violence and toward the apparent “sexual savagery” or “backwardness” of Palestinians and Arabs.

Pinkwashing is a related strategy that Israel deploys to distract attention away from its oppression of Palestinians in the face of a growing international Palestinian solidarity movement. AlQaws activists, centering the experiences of queer Palestinians, describe pinkwashing as an international propaganda effort that aims to rebrand Israel as a liberated “modern” and therefore “gay-friendly” state compared with what it portrays as hyper-homophobic “Palestinian-Arab-Muslim culture.”

AlQaws reminds us that pinkwashing not only serves to justify settler-colonialism (i.e. “savage” homophobic Palestinians need to be dominated and civilized by modern, progressive, gay-friendly Israelis) but it also divides Palestinians. For instance, it alienates queer Palestinians by defining Palestinian sexual diversity as non-existent or unnatural.

Exposing the impact of these strategies on Palestinian communities, Sarah Ihmoud says Israel’s targeting of Palestinian women’s bodies generates patriarchy among Palestinians, leading to shifts in power relations within families and communities. For example, some family members, concerned about the threat of sexual assault, might wittingly or unwittingly strengthen patriarchal currents by understandably steering daughters away from political activism.

Just as colonialist U.S. policies forced Indigenous children to separate from their parents and attacked the rights of Indigenous mothers, many Palestinians are denied the possibility of mothering, protecting their loved ones, and reveling in the joy of relations, togetherness and community building. In the West Bank and Gaza, the hundreds of Israeli check points and roadblocks that restrict Palestinian movement are a crucial site of violence against Palestinian women’s bodies. There, women in labor are denied or delayed from reaching hospitals and forced to give birth at checkpoints, resulting in miscarriages and death.

There are many other ways in which Israeli colonization is constituted by a systematic attack on Palestinian mothering and caregiving, as well, including Israeli soldiers’ raids of Palestinian homes are often accompanied by sexual harassment of mothers and daughters. Israel’s systematic shooting of children with impunity, its longstanding enforcement of family separation among Palestinians, and the devastating impact of ongoing massacres and killings on rising rates of miscarriages and still births.

In the face of these atrocities, since the beginning of the 20th century, when European Jews began migrating as part of the colonization of Palestine (before the state of Israel was established in 1948), Palestinian women have been forging unapologetic visions and movements of resistance. Eileen Kuttab’s mapping of these movements teaches us that the period of the 1920s-1947 entailed a distinct feminist national liberation agenda; 1948-1967 involved resistance and mutual aid work in the face of the massive destruction and fragmentation resulting from the creation of the state of Israel; 1967-1976 involved sustaining society in the face of intensified pressures and a growing resistance movement; and 1976-1981 inspired women’s mass-based organizations that organized and mobilized women in villages and refugee camps using national as well as women’s issues as frameworks for their work, extending and growing throughout the first intifada [uprising] of 1987-1991.

The massive escalation of Israeli violence during the second intifada of 2000 weakened women’s movements, and the next decade witnessed what Manal Jamal calls “western promoted gender empowerment” that “undermined the cohesiveness of the women’s movement” and disempowered the grassroots.

In the U.S., Palestinian and Arab feminists have been forced to contend with Zionism and racism within the U.S. women’s movement all along, including the consistent exclusion and repression of Palestinian feminist perspectives within activist communities that many refer to as “progressive except for Palestine.”

As Lila Sharif of the Palestinian Feminist Collective puts it,

Mainstream feminism has omitted a critique of Zionism and reified the racist idea that “Arab culture” is solely responsible for the repression and oppression of Palestinian women.

This explains why, in 2001, the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association, San Francisco (AWSA SF) Chapter published the paper, “The Forgotten ’ism: An Arab American Feminist Critique of Zionism, Racism, and Sexism” as part of the Oakland, California-based Women of Color Resource Center’s platform at the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa. Our intervention was a follow-up to Betty Friedan’s silencing of Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi at the 1985 UN conference on the status of women in Nairobi, Kenya, when she criticized Israel. Many Arab Women’s Solidarity Association SF members went on to join INCITE! Women and Gender Non-Conforming People of Color against Violence as INCITE! committed to its Palestine Points of Unity, including solidarity with the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees and divestment from Israel in the early 2000s.

These realities speak to why Palestinian and Arab feminists have built alliances primarily in radical Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) feminist spaces. Palestinian alliances within U.S. BIPOC feminist movements have their roots in the period of the first intifada of the 1980s. At the time, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Association (UPWA) allied with members of the Third World Women’s Alliance, which came out of the feminist impulse within the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In an interview, Camille Odeh, national director of the UPWA told me:

Founded in 1986 and disbanded in the early 1990s, the UPWA was practicing intersectionality before the term was coined in academia. We forged solidarity with feminist movements representing Central America, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, South Africa, many countries in the Arab region, and the U.S., [to form] the UPWA. Holding panels on sexuality, the UPWA was ahead of its time, and we connected the grassroots, working class with academics–all sitting at the table doing popular education work.

Today, we are witnessing the continuation of these legacies through the unified Palestinian Feminist Collective (PFC), which was founded in 2021 and is based in the U.S. The Palestinian Feminist Collective’s founding pledge invites allies to embrace Palestinian liberation as essential to feminist struggle. As Sarah Ihmoud states, the pledge exposes the alliance between many strands of U.S. feminism and Israel; honors the feminist traditions that have come before us; affirms the visible and invisible ways Palestinian women have been resisting and envisioning a different future; and insists on the inseparability of gender and queer emancipation and decolonization.

The Palestinian Feminist Collective’s extensive toolkit provides a step-by-step guide for allies committed to solidarity with Palestinian liberation. According to Loubna Qatami, the collective continues the legacy of historical Palestinian women’s movements, affirms the unity of Palestinian peoplehood across borders; and validates a coalitional politics with Black, Indigenous and all global freedom struggles.

Today’s U.S.-based Palestinian feminist movement is anti-colonial in its resistance and decolonial in its insistence on what Leena Odeh explains as “re-discover[ing] a new sense of belonging — to us, to each other, to the earth … and plant[ing] seeds of values centered liberation, healing and steadfastness in all of our communities so that we can reclaim our wholeness.”

In an interview with Truthout, Lila Sharif explained this dual vision:

With the most recent Israeli violence in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Feminist Collective finds creative ways to sustain ourselves and each other. Publicly, we take up digital spaces to center Palestine as a feminist issue; ally with Black, Indigenous and transnational feminist movements; lead workshops; and speak on radio, TV and across the U.S. to support our sisters in Gaza and across Palestine. Our decolonial component encourages carrying each other through collective grief. We uphold, celebrate, learn from and continue the work of Palestinian (and Arab) women who have sustained life. Their practices have included writing, teaching, caregiving, organizing, revolting, transmitting history, and others that call out, resist, and defy settler colonialism, military violence, racism, patriarchy, white supremacy, homophobia and capitalist exploitation. We also recognize how Palestinian women sustain joy and pleasure through singing, dancing, preparing and sharing food, storytelling, poetic expression, praying, planting and harvesting. We see Palestinian feminist praxis rooted in decolonial aspirations in Palestine and beyond, thereby radically transforming mainstream feminism.

Through collective healing and mobilizing, building and fighting, our Palestinian and Arab feminist movements exist to resist. Activism is not a choice. It is survival. As we carry the blood of our people in our hearts, we will continue to rise up out of love for our land, our histories, and one another far beyond freedom, and we will continue to grow, from the ashes of every Israeli assault, “roses from thorns.